last few times I visited Sonia she wasnt able to say anything. Last
week the only words she was able to say was: Its absurd.
I had to agree. It was absurd for Sonia who had been so active and robustly
healthy her whole life to be condemned to a sickbed at the end of it.
On the other hand it was marvelous that Sonia had been
so healthy for 93 years. Maryanne Brady (whom I see in the audience) told
me all the Catholic ladies in her building were praying rosaries that
Sonia not be run down by a car. The way she crossed the street against
the light walking Polka, its a miracle she wasnt.
About two weeks ago, though, on one of her better days,
Sebastian (Sonias volunteer German translator), Matthew Larson (who
used to read to Sonia), Carol Asher, and Marjorie (Sonias hospice
aide) were all gathered around Sonias bed. Sonia looked at all of
us and declared: Lets organize ourselves, here. We should
spend part of our time discussing music and art: whats new and worth
seeing in New York. We should spend some time discussing literature, and
then we can devote the rest of our time discussing the current political
In other words, Sonia mapped out a two- or three-hour
conversation of the sort all of us gathered here have enjoyed with her.
I was elated. One of us started talking, just like old times. Two minutes
later Sonia was snoring. Her mind and her heart were willing but her body
was too wracked with illness to take part.
Sonia and I became friends because of such conversations.
In 1983, Sonias best friend Marianne Blatt Iceland lived in New
Jersey, an hour away by car. Mariannes husband Ben was a friend
of mine, so Marianne started asking me to take Sonia along to see her.
We became friends talking about everything on those drives, theorizing
solutions to the worlds problems. Sonia knew what she was talking
about. She had a vast, precise knowledge of many parts of the world, gained
from extensive travels and wide-ranging reading.
On one of those trips to the Icelands house in
New Jersey in March 1988, we were sitting outside, listening to music
on the stereo admiring a fine vista of the Watchung Hills. Marianne walked
up and said: Sonia, dear, what were you doing 50 years ago, today?
Sonia protested: How in the world should I know
Marianne said: Its March 11th. What were
you doing March 11, 1938?
Sonia nodded in assent. That was the day the German
army marched in to annex Austria.
Sonia told us of listening to Prime Minister Schuschniggs
radio speech to the Austrian people. Schuschnigg indicated hed tried,
but failed, to get help from his friend Mussolini. Hed tried to
rally the Austrian army, but the army wouldnt fight. Sonia hated
Schuschnigg for suppressing so brutally the workers revolt in 1934,
but here he sounded pitiful.
Marianne broke in, recalling the chill she felt down
her spine hearing Schuschnigg close with the words: God help Austria.
German soldiers then took over the radio station.
Sonia and Marianne both believed the workers would fight
back the German army.
Sonias mother was hosting a dinner party that
night. One of their guests was a German doctor Sonias mother had
befriended whod fled Germany. The next day they learned the doctor,
who was Jewish, had committed suicide. The next day the apartment buildings
near Sonia were draped with huge Swastikas. It seemed people, neighbors,
had been hiding them, waiting for the Nazis to appear. The streets were
full of marching feet. In 24 hours Austria had ceased to exist.
On the drive home, Sonia told me more. She told how
her brother Max was imprisoned in Dachau. The Nazis couldnt believe
that she was the political one not her brother. Sonia told me about pleading
with the Gestapo for her brother. She told me some of the stories that
she tells in her memoirs. I see Jim Monaco in the audience; his press
is bringing out Sonias fine story in English. October 24th I believe
is the publication day.
On those drives home from New Jersey and during many
happy hours listening to her at her apartment, Sonia told me of devoting
herself when she was young to the Socialist Party in Austria. Shed
have me laughing and envious at the same time describing her socialist
youth camps and the pageants they used to put on depicting Class
Struggle Through the Ages. In the years following World War I, these
pageants would end in a rosy depiction of socialism victorious, inexorably
sweeping crypto-Nazi capitalists into the dustbin of history.
Sonia was the kind of friend everyone should be lucky
enough to have.
When I started out teaching, for example, Sonia would
give me advice. She was afraid Id be a pushover for the kids. So
she urged me to be stern at first and then ease up over the school year.
She gave me the example of one her own teachers in second or third grade.
Sonias best friend had dared to unroll a cough drop on the first
day of classes. The teacher roared out at her: You dare to eat FOOD
in my classroom! The little girl started crying. It was useless
to explain to such a teacher that she had a sore throat and was just taking
a cough drop. The next day, some one in class not her friend
sneezed. The teacher stopped writing on the blackboard and whirled around
as if shed been affronted . . . but didnt say a word, mollified
to realize it had only been a sneeze . . . at which Sonias little
friend started crying again.
What! the teacher roared out: You
again? WHY ARE YOU CRYING?
To which her little friend gasped out between sobs,
Oh, teacher, youre so good to us.
Sonia took me to operas to further my love of music.
The Tales of Hoffman, Don Giovanni, La Boheme
I would read the synopsis from the program to Sonia before each
act. She would listen gravely and say: Well the plots of these things
are idiotic all of them but theres some exquisite
music coming up.
I was lucky enough to have Sonia show me around Vienna.
The weather that particular summer happened to be in the 90s, but Sonia
was undeterred. We walked all over Vienna. Id read out the street
signs to her in terrible German. Shed decode my mispronunciations
and say, I believe, its just down this way. She showed
me coffee houses where she spent her time as a student and tried to explain
the economics of a business establishment where customers order one coffee
and sit at the same table all day. We went to an outdoor café which
served up Sonias favorite straw mushrooms in crepes. She took me
walking in the hills overlooking Vienna. We saw the Bauhaus architecture
of the housing complex at Karl Marx Hof Platz. And Sonia showed me the
steps of the University of Vienna.
When Sonia was a student there, Nazi youth groups would
periodically seize Jewish students drag them down the halls and throw
them down those steps of the university. The socialist students would
meet and decide next time they were going to do something, but somehow
they never did.
One of the nicest things about being friends with Sonia
was getting invited to dinner parties. Sonia had interesting friends of
all sorts. At one of those parties I along with three or four other
people as I recall were rewashing wine glasses that werent
quite useable and a murmur started circulating: Wellman met Eichmann.
Wellman knew Eichmann. Wellman was one of Sonias guests.
I didnt think this was quite right. Wellman shouldnt
be at this party, I was thinking, if he knew Eichmann.
Somebody took me aside and assured me there was more to the story and
I should talk to Wellman about it. Heinz Wellman agreed to see me a few
days later. Sonia had greatly encouraged me by this time, telling me:
1) Wellman is Jewish. And 2) Wellman knows everything. There isnt
anything Wellman doesnt know, about anywhere on the globe.
It turned out that Sonias dinner guest Heinz Wellman
had been a travel agent, partner in a big agency in Berlin. (Like Sonia
with her Ph.D. and many of Sonias crowd he was extremely well-educated
having studied law prior to becoming a travel agent.) It turned
out after Kristallnacht, Wellmans travel agency was the only Jewish
travel agency left in Berlin. Knowing that Wellman was Austrian, Eichmann
paid a business call on Wellman, grandly proposing that Wellman make travel
arrangements to get all of the Jews out of Austria. The Nazis were all
for it, at first.
The problem, Wellman explained to me, was with places
like the United States. Nobody would take the Jews Germany wanted to get
rid of. Visas and passports could not be obtained.
That was what a dinner party at Sonias house was
like. You met extraordinary people; the dishes usually needed a little
extra washing; and sometimes you ended up with food for thought for life.
I count myself lucky for having known Sonia. She was
extraordinary. Sad as we are today not to be able to look forward to more
freewheeling, wide-ranging discussions of the state of the world with
our friend Sonia to live to be 93 should really be cause of celebration.
Sonia had a gift for striking up a conversation with
anyone she met. She spoke so many languages she could always find someone
in her train compartment with whom to strike up a conversation. She enjoyed
herself hugely. She wasnt afraid to travel anywhere. Sonia lived
a very good life.
August 14, 2001